“Ah, well played.  Well played, indeed.”

This little phrase has become increasingly common in our culture.  We hear it in movies,  in conversation, even in social media memes and soundbites.  From time to time, we might see it posted in the midst of some online debate or discussion taking place between friends, when a person’s response is begrudgingly acknowledged to have been particularly witty or clever.

“Ah, well played, my friend.  Well played.”

The phrase does not always imply that the person is necessarily in full agreement with the other person’s position, but that they are nonetheless acknowledging that there is a degree of wit, or insight, or even cleverness of the other’s response.  It is often used as a way of showing respect, even for an opponent, when a person knows that they have – if even for a moment – been bested.

“Ah, well played.  Well played indeed.”

The online Urban Dictionary, which is a veritable treasure trove of explanations of words and phrases used by one’s teenaged children, suggests that “well played” – and I quote – “is often used in place of ‘touché’. However,” suggests the Urban Dictionary, “’well played’ shows more class. The proper use is when one has been defeated or has lost in a battle of words.”

And in light of the fact that we, as Presbyterians, are always interested in learning things that show more class, “well played” it shall be.

Well played, indeed.

But as Presbyterians, we also take the texts of Scripture seriously, which makes it difficult to know how to respond to today’s suggested reading from the Gospel of Luke.

This passage from Luke 16 is one of the strangest of all of Jesus’ parables.  Quite a number of his stories upset our expectations, confuse our perceptions, even surprise us.  But of all of the strange parables, this parable of the dishonest steward may be among the most challenging of all.

After all, Jesus seems to be commending the unethical behavior of the dishonest manager who, upon realizing that he was about to lose his job, set out to defraud his boss.  “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me?” the man asked himself, “I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.”  So, in light of his mixture of laziness, lack of strength, and pride, this clearly dishonest manager decided that his best bet was to take advantage of the situation while he still could.

He went to those who owed his master various amounts, and told them to take out their invoices, and change the amounts that the invoices indicated that they owed.

You owe a hundred jugs of olive oil?  Make it fifty.

You owe a hundred containers of wheat?  Make it eighty.

It was actually a fairly clever, albeit entirely fraudulent, response.  The dishonest manager was counting on the fact that those whose bills he had reduced would likely feel somewhat beholden to him, and perhaps be willing to extend him some courtesy when he was out of his job.  And his rich master was unlikely to be able to do much about it, since the invoices were being reduced by the manager, who was the master’s own employee, before he was terminated.  We can almost hear the phones ringing in the rich man’s customer complaint department if he had subsequently tried to collect what he was actually owed – “your own manager reduced my bill – you can’t come back now and claim that I still owe you what your own employee discounted!”

And the master’s response?

We read that the master “commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.”

Perhaps with a shake of his head, the rich master could not help but acknowledge the man’s cleverness.  There was no condemnation, no punishment (aside, of course, from the fact that the man still lost his job), no harsh judgement nor any critical moralizing.   No, the dishonest manager was commended for realizing the bind that he was in, for seizing an opportunity, for turning the situation to his own advantage, for acting shrewdly, for responding cleverly.  The dishonest man had a clear goal in mind – to do what was necessary to take care of himself, and he acted in a way that was clever, and clearly, completely and consistently in line with his stated, self-serving intent.

And the master, upon learning about the dishonest manager’s clever act, seemed to be offering a begrudging, “ah, well played.  Well played, indeed.”

But what was even stranger was that Jesus seemed to be encouraging the disciples to learn from the dishonest man.  “…for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.  And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

So what are we supposed to make of such a strange text?

The difficulty, in reading this passage, emerges when we start to become confused about what Jesus was seeking to convey to his disciples, to whom the story was addressed.  We can, in fact, begin to wonder if it was the unethical and even corrupt behavior of the manager that Jesus was commending.

But a more careful reading clarifies that it was not the man’s dishonest behaviour, but rather his shrewdness, his cleverness, his ingenuity in the face of challenge, that Jesus was seeking to highlight for his disciples’ attention.  “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly” – not because he had acted dishonestly – but because he had shrewdly turned the difficult situation to the advantage of the self-centered and selfish goal that he was seeking to achieve.

His goal was – from the very beginning – to take care of himself – but when the threat of termination arose, he found a way to continue to accomplish what he had set his heart and mind to do – to take care of himself, regardless of the costs to others.

The question that Jesus seemed to be setting before his followers was this – what if you – as my disciples, as my followers – demonstrated the same degree of single-minded devotion, the same measure of clever and even shrewd assessments of challenging situations, and the same degree of focused intentionality as the dishonest manager demonstrated?  But what if you did so with a very different goal and a very different methods for accomplishing that goal?  That is, if your goal is not simply yourself, as was the case for the dishonest manager; and if you are, in fact, guided by a different vision, a different motivation, a different set of moral precepts, a different law than those demonstrated by the dishonest manager, what could you learn from this story of the dishonest manager?

To answer such a question, it is necessary to consider what Jesus had already stated was supposed to be the goal, the aim, the vision by which his followers lived.

And the answer was that Christ had come to proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God.   He did so by touching and caring for the sick and the suffering, by feeding the hungry, by telling memorable little stories about that kingdom, by using his wondrous power to show what life in that kingdom would be like.   It was a kingdom in which love would be the guiding command and principle; in which peace and goodness would be demonstrated in word and action; in which kindness would be returned for evil, and radical forgiveness would be practiced; in which the blessings of the earth would be shared so that all could join together in the celebration of life in abundance and in fullness.  It would be a kingdom in which those who had made mistakes, those who had been ostracized and excluded, those who had been judged and deemed sinful, would find embrace and acceptance.   It would be a kingdom against which nothing – no form of opposition, no suffering, no oppression, not even death – would be able to prevail.

That was the kingdom that they were called to seek above all else. That was supposed to be the goal of their lives.

And they would, as they headed into the world, need to be able to make clear and intentional decisions about how to make that kingdom a reality.

And this, perhaps, is where the example of the dishonest manager, as strange as it might seem, could offer them some guidance.

Because the dishonest manager had acted, at all times in this whole story, in single-minded pursuit of his self-serving goal.  All of the decisions that he made, all of the relationships that he had cultivated, all of his interactions with others, all of his choices – were undertaken to accomplish his stated aim.

Might we, in a similar manner, consider how the church – and every one of our lives – would be different if we were as devoted, as focused, even as shrewd as the manager had been in seeking  to accomplish Christ’s call to build his kingdom in this world?  What if our lives were wholeheartedly and unabashedly dedicated to the promotion of life, of peace, of justice, of kindness, of harmony with each other and with the earth, of holiness, of joyful union with God?   What if we took a page from the dishonest manager’s playbook, but instead of asking ourselves “how can we take care of ourselves and turn this or that situation to our own advantage?” we instead asked ourselves, “how does this circumstance or this challenge offer opportunities to seek Christ’s kingdom, to bring glory to God, and to be of benefit of those who need to experience the grace and goodness of God”?

And in so doing, what if each decision that we make, each word that we speak, each moment that we are given, each day that we live were dedicated to letting the light grow brighter and the love increase until doubt, and despair, and hatred are overwhelmed by the power of faith, of hope and of love?

In other words, what if we were as dedicated to Christ and his kingdom as the dishonest manager was to himself?

Well, it is a big “what if”.

And it might take a lifetime of ongoing discipleship to answer such “what if” questions.  But I suspect that it is a worthy pursuit, in this life – to constantly and repeatedly strive for and to seek the kingdom of God and the ways of Christ in everything that we do.

There is no way to tell, for sure, what difference that might make in the world.  I suspect, and believe, that it would make the world a better place.  And I believe that if we have truly sought to live such a life, there will come a moment, when time is no more, when we shall hear words pronounced about the way that we have used this beautiful gift called life.

And those words will not be, “ah, well played.  Well played, indeed.”

But rather, “well done, good and faithful servant.”